Friday, April 15, 2011

Ism vs. Ism

Drawing by Nikolai Gumilyov / Image courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

Today marks 125 years since the birth of Nikolai Gumilev (or Gumilyov), one of the founders of Acmeism—a poetry movement that seems to find its parallel among the Anglo-American modernists in Imagism. The Acmeists defined themselves against another group of Russian poets, the Symbolists, about whom Osip Mandelstam wrote the following in his 1912 essay “The Morning of Acmeism” (Утро акмеизма):

The symbolists did not make for good house occupants. They loved to travel, but they felt unwell, not at home in their own bodies. … One can build only in the name of “three dimensions,” since any structure depends upon them. This is why an architect must be a good house occupant, but the Symbolists were poor craftsmen. To build means to do battle with emptiness, to hypnotize space.

The Acmeists saw themselves as doing practical, material work with language and even called their group a “workshop” (“цех”).  In his 1913 essay “The Legacy of Symbolism and Acmeism” (“Наследие символизма и акмеизм”), Gumilev explained that the poets in his movement sought “a greater balance of power and a more precise knowledge of the relationship between subject and object than had existed in Symbolism.” As I say, when reading statements like these, I can’t help but think of the Imagists, who advocated “direct treatment of the ‘thing’” and the use of “absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation” (Ezra Pound, “A Retrospect,” 1918). Appropriately, what the Acmeists found objectionable in Symbolism—that is, abstraction—is the same problem that Ezra Pound is said to have helped another poet grounded in symbolism, W. B. Yeats, to remedy.

The Acmeists included two figures well known to American readers—Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, who was married to Gumilev—and two others who I think may be somewhat less familiar—Mikhail Kuzmin and Georgy Ivanov. As for Gumilev, he famously met his end in 1921 at the age of thirty-five when he ran afoul of the Bolsheviks, placing him on that seemingly endless list of Russian poets about whom we wonder, “What else might they have done if they’d lived just a bit longer?”

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Translation in "Poetry"

Detail of cover for "Poetry," April 2006 (Nathan Theis, "Voice") / Image courtesy of the Poetry Foundation

For a few years, there was no periodical publication I awaited more eagerly than Poetry’s annual translation issue. It came out each April, and it contained work by major poets in translations done by some of the best literary translators working today. From 2006 to 2009, I would open the April issue and encounter poems from familiar voices and new ones alike: Marina Tsvetaeva in a translation by Sasha Dugdale, Saadi Youssef by Khaled Mattawa, Rainer Maria Rilke by David Ferry, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill by Paul Muldoon, and Osip Mandelstam by John High and Matvei Yankelevich, just to name a few of my favorites.

Alas, those days are no more. I’m not foolish enough to hazard a guess at what went through the minds of the editors and publisher of Poetry, but for whatever reason, they chose to stop putting out the April translation issue. Still, the magazine has been including more and more translations in their regular issues. Last month’s pages contained translations of work by three writers, including a spellbinding set of poems by the fifteenth-century Indian poet Kabir (translated by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra), and the April issue features John Ashbery’s translations of prose poems by Arthur Rimbaud. In Poetry’s podcast for the current issue, the editors asked Ashbery why he had decided to translate the nineteenth-century Frenchman, and he replied, “I was just translating it originally for the pleasure of doing it, as I sometimes do with French poetry, and perhaps as a kind of exercise to see if it might have some kind of impact on my own poetry.”